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Students Feel Good About Their College Readiness. These Charts Tell a Different Story

Despite recent skyrocketing tuition and rumblings about its overall value, a college degree remains cemented in the minds of most Americans as the single best chance to prosper financially as an adult. Not surprisingly, then, most high school graduates—about 62 percent—enroll in a two- or four-year college immediately after graduation. But much smaller segment of the overall population—less than 40 percent of U.S. adults 25 and older—possess either a bachelor’s or advanced degree, such as a master’s, professional degree, or doctorate.

The disconnect may be explained, in part, by a lack of college readiness among high school students—including an overwhelming percentage of those who are college-bound. Check out these charts that detail some of the factors illustrating high school students’ ill-preparedness for college: grade inflation, grade grubbing, declines in college standardized tests scores, and more.

Most high school students perceive themselves as ‘college ready’

Most of today’s college-bound high school students appear very confident in their ability to excel at the next level. In a September 2022 ACT survey of 1,485 high school students who planned to attend a postsecondary institution the fall after graduation, 85 percent rated themselves “very or mostly prepared” to do well academically in the first semester of college.

Declines in college readiness benchmarks

Demonstrated ability in English composition, social sciences, algebra, and biology has long been considered a standard benchmark of college readiness. The ACT standardized test—one tool commonly used as part of the college application process—provides an opportunity for test takers to demonstrate their ability in each area. ACT test scores have reached a 30-year low, and have declined for six years in a row, reported the ACT. The data points on the following chart reveal declines over time in the share of students meeting these benchmarks.

Grade grubbing

While actual measures of college readiness may show declines, many of today’s students readily attempt to argue their way to better grades. And in many cases, it works.

In an August 2023 survey of more than 250 high school teachers and college professors, nearly half of respondents said students often ask for a better grade than the one they earned. Among educators whose students request a grade improvement, 82 percent admit to changing the original mark.

Grades are up, standardized test scores down

High school students’ grade point averages, or GPAs, in core academic subjects English and math rose steadily between 2010 and 2021, even as ACT scores, designed to measure proficiency in these core subjects, declined over the same time period. In 2022 students’ GPAs did drop ever-so-slightly, as ACT scores continued their descent.

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